Most weekends when the weather is good, and even when it isn’t, Jessica Lee Ives heads to the waters of Maine with her husband, Jonathan. They like to go places they’ve never been, in search of the perfect swimming hole or wilderness area to fly fish.

“Lately, we’ve been exploring Cherryfield and Machias, Jonesport and Beals, just driving around and looking,” she said. “We go on these adventures and pick places we have never been, bodies of water we have heard stories about or are curious about.”

They usually jump in the water, and Ives typically goes in with her underwater camera. This fall, Ives shows paintings from her exploration of Maine waters in “Waterline,” her first solo exhibition at Courthouse Gallery Fine Art in Ellsworth. These paintings reflect their explorations of Maine’s lake, river and coastal swimming and fishing holes, as well as waters in Tennessee and Oregon. The series explores both the physical and spiritual qualities of water and the wonder of the human body, especially while it is immersed.

Ives, who lives in Camden, recently completed a yearlong massage therapy program in Bend, Oregon, where she learned how the human body works from the inside out and why it moves the way it does. Her anatomical understanding informs the new work.

“Water Form.” Photo courtesy of Jessica Lee Ives

“I am in absolute awe of the human body after going to massage therapy school and learning in depth about all the systems and the connection of one piece to the next and one system to the next,” she said. “Having that hands-on experience, the actual touch experience with what you are painting, was an absolute game-changer. It’s not just a visual experience that I am trying to capture and communicate. It is a body experience. It is a lived experience.”

In these oil-on-panel paintings, Ives shows bodies in the water, swimming, jumping and playing. She paints from the perspective of the water’s surface, below the surface and looking down from above. These are masterful works because of her handling of bodies in motion and the fluidity of the water. We see bone structures and muscles that feel sculptural, water bubbles exploding from a swimmer’s plunge and the sun playing tricks on the rippling surface.

She likes painting bodies in water because that is where bodies are most free, “and I think water displays the human body beautifully.”

Her education in human anatomy dovetailed with an awakening of the importance of clean water and its role in her life, as well as the larger community in Maine and around the world. Her latest work is not in response to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, or the protests surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline and its impact on the Missouri River in the Dakotas, but her work feels more urgent because of those issues.

Jessica Lee Ives, “High Water, Grand Lake Stream.”
Image courtesy of Jessica Lee Ives

Ives completed nearly all the paintings in this show since the spring.

“Those issues are not obvious in an intentional way, but I have to believe my interest is provoked in part by the collective experience and understanding that we are all going through,” she said. “As Jonathan and I do this water exploration and (engage in) different water activities, I feel we are in the baby stages of understanding how much we rely on healthy water to be in this world. Between swimming and fly fishing, we have an understanding of what a healthy river looks like and the importance of it.”

Ives received her bachelor’s degree from The Cooper Union School of Art. Her work as an artist-in-residence at Ground Zero in New York City after Sept. 11 earned her a Clark Foundation Fellowship.

Karin Wilkes, co-owner of Courthouse Gallery Fine Art with her husband, Mike, wanted to give Ives a solo show because she appreciates how Ives handles both the water and the human figure in her paintings.

“She is very successful at integrating the contemporary human figure into the landscape, especially with this water series. It’s challenging for an artist to transcend that, but Jessica has reached a point where she has overcome many of those obstacles,” Wilkes said. “And the way she paints the water is stunning. The reflections above a swimmer’s head look like a tiara, or a gigantic headdress glittering with jewels.”

Jessica Lee Ives, “Joyful Participation”
Image courtesy of Jessica Lee Ives

Courthouse Gallery Fine Art has represented Ives for several years, and many of her early paintings at the gallery were passive interiors that looked at the landscape through windows. “With her recent figure and water series, and now with her interest in kinesthetic intelligence and her athletic lifestyle, I feel like Ives has burst through those windows both figuratively and literally. These paintings are effective because Ives has made them about more than pictures of people swimming. They’re fresh. They’re authentic,” Wilkes said. “She is translating her own experiences to the viewer.”

Ives has no secrets about how she handles the water in her paintings. It’s all come very easily and naturally, and she can’t explain it other than to surmise, “I spend so much time in the water, under the water and around the water, I pay very close attention, not just using my brain and my eyes, but using my body.”

Eight years ago, she was appalled by the idea of painting the human figure. Now, it’s all she does. It’s been an evolution, as she incorporates more of her own life into her paintings.

She calls her figure paintings “an expression of beyond the wonder. Take the painting away, I am still going to find a way to express to people that it’s amazing to be within these bodies of ours.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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Twitter: pphbkeyes